If you live in inner-city suburbs, work in an Australian university, are involved
in the arts, media or culture, or participate in certain online forums, it is
easy to get access to lots of people who hate John Howard. Howard-haters have
evolved a shared distaste of his worldview, based around a heady mix of revulsion
at the government's approach to asylum seekers, a dislike of his suburban ordinariness,
and a sense that the current government is not interested in the life, culture
and future of Australia.
Yet "Howard-hating" has an obvious limitation, which is the appearance
that it is in fact a hatred of the Australian people who vote for Howard and the
Coalition government. It enables Howard to work a "we/they" dichotomy
of "ordinary Australians" and the "perpetually angry", that
has by now become second nature to him. Moreover, it is a way of constructing
the political agenda that entirely suits Howard and the Coalition, since it always
takes the political agenda back to Howard's preferred agenda - himself in particular,
and issues of security and national stewardship more generally.
It also shifts Federal Labor away from the domestic policy issues on which
the Coalition government is seen to be weak, such as health, education, and government
service delivery more generally. To use an AFL metaphor, it's like a Melbourne
team choosing to play its home games against the Brisbane Lions at the Gabba.
It attracts a crowd, and it doesn't make winning impossible, but it does make
it a lot more difficult.
In a recent review of Bob Ellis' Goodbye
Babylon, in the academic journal Continuum, Mark Gibson spots the
limitations of this position very sharply. Gibson draws attention to a passage
in Ellis's book where Ellis hopes that the "sly whingeing prattle" and
the "ceaseless and wheedling hypocrisy and cover-up" that he sees as
the Howard style will be overcome by "the power of that education achieved
under Whitlam and Hawke and Keating and Radio National [that] will not go away".
As Gibson rightly observes, Howard's continuing electoral success has been a shocking
moment for this section of the Australian left:
The shock for the Australian left, of the politics of border security in particular,
has been its exposure to the fragility, the tenuous reach, of precisely "that
education achieved under Whitlam and Hawke and Keating and Radio National".
Between 1996 and 2001, the Labor Party at a federal level has been in serious
denial about this disjuncture, hoping that the problem was the product of specific
events rather than a structural shift in voting patterns in federal elections,
that Howard would in effect beat himself on unpopular domestic policies (such
as introduction of the GST), and that a poll-driven, "end of ideology"
approach to politics would allow larger questions to be deferred into an indefinite
Simon Crean's emphatic victory over Kim Beazley in the recent ALP leadership
contest is a blessing, since it ensures that these questions cannot be again deferred.
As Graham Young has observed from qualitative research around the ALP leadership
battle, a poll-driven leadership change would be as likely to be unpalatable to
the electorate as those conducted by the Liberal Party in NSW and Victoria prior
to the state elections where they lost decisively. Moreover, it clarified the
failures of the federal ALP under Beazley between 1996 and 2001, and why the search
for leadership based upon poll-driven popularity rather than policy would be a
The policy issue for federal Labor is not hard to discern, but finding a resolution
for it does seem to be unnecessarily difficult. It is about harnessing a more
inclusive and compassionate social policy agenda to an economic policy that the
electorate finds credible, and won't cost them the low interest rates they've
come to enjoy on their mortgages, in considerably increasing numbers, since the
This is why "GST Rollback" was such a disaster. People didn't believe
that Labor would, or indeed could, wind back the GST. It also raised the perennial
"where's the money coming from" questions for more developed Labor policies,
such as those for higher education.
It's not a problem with the Labor "brand", although party reform
is nonetheless clearly needed. To make the obvious point, Labor Premiers are not
at all disadvantaged by their association with the ALP.
It also points out how a commitment to policy over polling, articulated to
Labor's commitment to the less well-off and socially disadvantaged, will need
a more adroit balance than has been evidenced so far. I've
argued elsewhere in this journal that Labor's blanket opposition to reforming
the Disability Services Pension, and not proposing alternative measures for older
unemployed people who have been using the DSP as a way to get financial support
without having to face the punitive regimes operating around the Job Search Allowance,
is both a failure of policy and a failure of imagination, and reinforces the perception
that Labor knows how to spend tax dollars on new initiatives, but not how to reduce
spending in other areas where "passive welfare" has become entrenched.
If Federal Labor is to be more pro-active in the policy domain, and in the
battle for ideas more generally, it also needs to be less insular. This is not
only about tackling factional tribalism - although that certainly needs addressing
- but about drawing lessons from the policy initiatives of like-minded governments
in other parts of the world. This is not about a wholesale adoption of Tony Blair's
"Third Way" - that
moment has definitely passed - but is about looking at how modernising, left-of-centre
governments elsewhere are tackling economic and social policy reform. To take
one example, Labor in New Zealand is currently reforming its higher-education
sector: are there lessons to take from this that could make a response to Brendan
Nelson's proposals for the sector more effective?
None of this has anything to do with the politics of hating John Howard. Indeed,
that entrenched reflex among sections of the Australian left gets in the way of
it, as it has a "Groundhog Day" feel to it. The usual suspects get up
and denounce Howard, who reacts along by now very familiar political reflexes.
Why not instead pursue weaker links in the Coalition chain?
Julia Gillard's handling of the Shadow Immigration portfolio - Labor's "black
dog" in recent years - has been an excellent example of how to do it: neutralise
the policy difference, and target the Minister. What about Kay Patterson? Would
more appearances by this Minister promoting the government's two-tiered Medicare
plans garner more support in the community? I think not. Jenny Macklin's response
to Brendan Nelson's reform package for higher education is also awaited with great
interest, particularly if it can be genuinely reformist and not simply a "just
say no" reaction.